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Broadly, a citation is a reference to a published or unpublished source (not always the original source). More precisely, a citation is an abbreviated alphanumeric expression embedded in the body of an intellectual work that denotes an entry in the bibliographic references section of the work for the purpose of acknowledging the relevance of the works of others to the topic of discussion at the spot where the citation appears. Generally the combination of both the in-body citation and the bibliographic entry constitutes what is commonly thought of as a citation (whereas bibliographic entries by themselves are not). References to single, machine-readable assertions in electronic scientific articles are known as nanopublications, a form of microattribution.
Citation has several important purposes: to uphold intellectual honesty (or avoiding plagiarism), to attribute prior or unoriginal work and ideas to the correct sources, to allow the reader to determine independently whether the referenced material supports the author’s argument in the claimed way, and to help the reader gauge the strength and validity of the material the author has used.
The forms of citations generally subscribe to one of the generally accepted citations systems, such as the Oxford, Harvard, MLA, American Sociological Association (ASA), American Psychological Association (APA), and other citations systems, as their syntactic conventions are widely known and easily interpreted by readers. Each of these citation systems has its respective advantages and disadvantages relative to the trade-offs of being informative (but not too disruptive) and thus are chosen relative to the needs of the type of publication being crafted. Editors often specify the citation system to use.
Bibliographies, and other list-like compilations of references, are generally not considered citations because they do not fulfill the true spirit of the term: deliberate acknowledgement by other authors of the priority of one’s ideas.